John Henry “Doc” Holliday, born in 1851, was a Southerner hailing from Georgia. He was brought up in a culture where young males learned to be gentlemen, but also to hunt, fight and handle a gun. He decided early on to pursue a career in dentistry, and at age 20 earned a degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. Doctor “Doc” Holliday set up a dental practice in Atlanta, Georgia, and began seeing patients. Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before he was diagnosed with what was then called “consumption,” known today as tuberculosis. Back in the day, people considered it a condition that could be inherited, as Doc’s mother had died of the disease when he was 15. They didn’t realize that it could be highly infectious, and that Doc actually caught it from his parent. Not many folks wanted to be treated by a consumptive dentist, so Doc moved out West, where the drier climate was thought to help arrest the symptoms of the disease.
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He arrived in Dallas, Texas, in July 1872 and tried to continue in dentistry, but he dissolved the business two years later. With his ambitions thwarted and knowing that his lifespan was now in a downward spiral, Doc turned his back on his profession. Instead, he became a professional gambler. On New Year’s Eve in 1873, Doc exchanged shots with a saloonkeeper and was jailed but later acquitted. He lived briefly in Denison and then moved on to Fort Griffin, Texas, in 1875. It was in Fort Griffin that Doc perfected his skills in gambling but was arrested for “playing at cards,” and he fled the area rather than pay the fines. Holliday traveled to Denver, Colorado, then over to Cheyenne, Wyoming, in February 1876.
Doc then was “lost,” some saying he went to Deadwood or Denver or back to Texas. It’s believed Doc may have shot and killed a black soldier outside of Fort Griffin in March 1876, which again put him to flight. Doc surfaced in Denver in July 1876 but left in a hurry after slashing a gambler named Bud Ryan with a knife. Disappearing again, Doc was in Dallas by January 1877 and again was arrested for gambling. A beating he gave to a Henry Kahn ended up with Kahn shooting and severely wounding Holliday in July 1877, and then in September, Doc moved to Griffin, where he operated a faro game. The town was too tame, however, and Doc went briefly to Eagle Pass before heading back to Fort Griffin. Here in 1878, he met Wyatt Earp for the first time, and after Doc cut a man named Ed Bailey in a poker altercation, he and Earp took off for Dodge City, Kansas.
Holliday & Earp
Doc Holliday never went back to Texas after settling in Dodge in May 1878. He tried once more to be respectable and advertised dentistry services in a local newspaper. He apparently behaved himself, as there were no police court records for him while in Dodge City. Charles Bassett was the town marshal, and Wyatt Earp became assistant marshal. Bat Masterson was the sheriff of Ford County at the time, and he met Doc for the first time in Dodge. Things were relatively quiet as Doc resumed his gambling habits, but tensions began to mount in July with the killing of a deputy U.S. marshal. This was followed by a cowboy shootout in a town saloon and a serious altercation between Earp and a couple of ranchers. Some ranch hands surrounded Earp on Front Street near the Long Branch Saloon. Holliday was in the saloon and saw what was happening; he stepped outside and told the cowhands, “Throw up your hands!” This gave Earp time to draw his guns, but one of the cowboys was already making a play, and Doc warned Wyatt while drawing his own gun and shooting the drover in the shoulder. This act cemented the friendship between Holliday and Earp.
The climate in Kansas was not conducive to Doc’s health, and he left Dodge City in December 1878. He wandered further West, ending up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he sought treatment at the Montezuma Hot Springs. The dry climate there and the springs revived his health, and he returned to the sporting life. In March 1879, Doc assisted Bat Masterson, who had recruited a small army of men for the Santa Fe Railroad in their struggle with the Rio Grande Railroad over which outfit would span Royal Gorge and run tracks to Leadville, where silver had been discovered. Bat and his men were surrounded by Rio Grande forces at a roundhouse in Pueblo, Colorado, and were forced to surrender. Doc went back to New Mexico, but not before Bat Masterson gave him a nickel-plated revolver for his services. As Masterson over the years ordered several nickel-plated revolvers from Colt, it was no doubt one of these.
To commemorate the life of Doc Holliday, the Italian firearms-maker Davide Pedersoli & Company recently introduced a line of Doc Holliday single-action revolvers. These sixguns are modeled after the Colt Lightning but have single-action mechanisms rather than the original’s double action. Like the original, these revolvers are built on small frames and have bird’s-head-style grips that are more of a “saw-handle” configuration than the “plow-handle” grip on the Single Action Army revolver. Colt produced the Lightning in .38 Long Colt, and Pedersoli offers these new six-shooters in .38 Special, so they will also accept .38 Long Colt or .38 Short Colt cartridges. Nickel-plated and blued versions are available with either a 4.2- or 5-inch, broach-rifled barrel. These revolvers come standard with checkered walnut grips that include the Pedersoli “dp” logo. The real clincher, however, is the backstrap, where Doc’s signature, “J.H. Holliday,” is engraved.
I recently got my hands on a nickel-plated Doc Holliday single action with a 5-inch barrel. I was immediately impressed with its fit and finish. The polish was outstanding, as the nickel had a mirror-like shine, and the screws, cylinder pin and catch were fire-blued, offering an attractive contrast.
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The rear of the cylinder on the Doc Holliday has rebated chambers that enclose the cartridge rim, while Uberti-made Lightning cylinders are open, exposing the cartridge rims. I don’t really see the need for the rebated cylinder, as it makes things difficult at the loading table at Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) matches. CAS events require an empty chamber under the hammer, and this is verified at the loading table by visibly eye-balling the rear of the cylinder. The Pedersoli gun disallows this.
While I like the checkered walnut grips on the Doc Holliday, to me, any nickel-plated gun associated with John Henry Holliday just has to have ivory grips. Bat Masterson preferred ivory on his sixguns, and since the movie Tombstone, everybody out there associates a nickel-plated, ivory-gripped handgun with Doc. So, I contacted Tombstone Gun Grips to obtain a set of polyurethane “ivory” grips for my test gun. I’m no artisan, but it didn’t take me too long to get the grips trimmed down to the grip frame and attached to the Doc Holliday revolver. I think you’ll agree that they look pretty darn good!
On The Range
To test the accuracy potential of the Pedersoli Doc Holliday, I used three brands of “cowboy cartridges” in this chambering: Black Hills’ 158-grain lead flat point (LFPs), Ten-X’s 130-grain RNFPs and Winchester’s 158-grain lead round nose (LRN) ammo. Shooting from a benchrest at a bullseye target 10 yards away, my best five-shot group, using the Black Hills ammo, measured 1.73 inches. Four shots in this group made a 1.07-inch cluster, but the fifth shot opened the group up. The best Ten-X group measured 2.12 inches, and the best from Winchester was 2.38 inches. The averages of all 15 five-shot groups stayed under 3 inches. The fixed sights on the Pedersoli shot close to the point of aim, and the trigger pull was crisp and light.
Next I took the Pedersoli Doc Holliday out to a cowboy shoot. Unusually mild weather made it a perfect day, considering that August in Central Indiana usually means heat and humidity. The match that day had six stages, and I chose to shoot the test gun with the Black Hills ammo. I knew the gun’s sights were right on the money with the Black Hills loads, so I could hold dead-center on the steel targets. As expected, the rebated chambers that hid the cartridge rims caused some problems at the loading table, but the cowpoke manning the table watched me load a round, skip a chamber, then load four more rounds so that when I cocked the hammer, he knew the chamber under the hammer was empty. The “Doc Special” acquitted itself very well that day with only one miss, which was my fault, not the sixgun’s.
The Doc Rides Again
Pedersoli’s Doc Holliday single action in .38 Special is indeed worthy of the legend it’s named after. After his time in New Mexico, Holliday joined Wyatt Earp in a number of well-known forays, including the OK Corral shootout and the ride against Curly Bill’s Cow-Boy gang. Despite his gunfighting and gambling, Doc eventually died of his consumption on November 18, 1887, in Glenwood Springs. This revolver serves his memory well. Like him, it’s reliable and shoots straight. For more information, visit davide-pedersoli.com.
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This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.